The Old Gods Rush In...

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...."

· Re-enchantment,Cultural Change

A number of years ago, I officiated at a friend's wedding. At the dinner afterwards, I sat across from the best man and sought to engage him in conversation by asking a question I often ask, "Have you ever experienced anything you would describe as inexplicable, supernatural?" The best man, a rotund, bespectacled Millenial, I'll call him, "Bob," looked across at me and quickly responded, "Oh yes." He then proceeded to describe a time in high school when he was sitting in the lunch room with a friend who happened to be a practitioner of shamanism. Bob said that the friend reached over and put his hand on his and at that instant the cafeteria faded out and Bob found himself alone, in a clearing, in the midst of a vast pine forest, under a cold Northern sky. To his surprise he found himself dressed in Native American garb. The scene lasted a bare instant, and then Bob found himself back at the lunch table under the harsh glare of the neon lights, wearing the clothes he'd dressed in that morning. His friend then proceeded to desribe to him in minute detail the vision he had just seen.

As a pastor, I then naturally asked Bob what his experience of Christianity had been. The memory Bob most associated with candy, was being bribed with candy in Sunday school to learn Bible verses. Is it any surprise that he subsequently ruled Christianity out and instead chose to follow a spiritual path more in line with his experience in the school cafeteria?

Such experiences as that described by Bob can make many American Evangelicals uncomfortable. This is because too many of us, in the words of Os Guiness, are really "functional atheists." If we're honest, our experience of our faith all too often has more in common with that of Bob's experience in Sunday school class, than his visceral, shamanistic experience. We've been more affected by the naturalistic, materialistic worldview that has reigned in our culture for at least the past 150 years.

We forgot that Christianity was birthed in a world where individuals felt their vulnerability in the face of myriad competing spiritual powers. Rather than a buffered self, individuals recognized they were in fact porous and all too often prey to spiritual forces beyond their ken. Modern pagans and those reacting against the flattening/disenchantment of our modern world have a vision of paganism that is romanticized, sugar-coated. They think paganism is the way to strike off the shackles of a joyless Christianity in exchange for the broad, free, joy-filled expanse of paganism (a la Edward Gibbon). They don’t realize the terror and fear of a world inhabited by myriad spiritual powers, many of them malevolent against which one is vulnerable.

But as Yale historian Ramsay MacMullen points out in his book, Christianizing the Roman Empire, Christianity grew primarily because it offered a spiritual power greater than all other powers. While similar studies (like Rodney Stark's) point to a variety of factors in Christianity's triumph, MacMullen points out that both pagan and Christian primary sources clearly point to the spiritual power possessed by Christians as the reason for its eventual triumph over its pagan competitors. People came to realize that Christ was the supreme spiritual power and thus offered haven from the many hostile spiritual powers surrounding them.

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An early Christian hymn to Jesus from the 2nd century declares, "You guard the lamb, having taken it upon your shoulder and having united it with your flock…I will travel through the frightful powers without suffering anything from them." (From The MacMillan Book of Earliest Christian Hymns, p. 64).

And early Christian apologists pointed to their authority over demons as proof of the Gospel message. As Athanasius of Alexandria remarked in the 4th century, "[O]bviously, (Jesus) would not be expelling evil spirits…if He were dead, for the evil spirits would not obey One who was dead. If, on the other hand, the mere naming of Him drives them forth, then clearly He is not dead."

How does all this relate to our current situation?

With the rise of postmodernity, our increasing cultural diversity, and the retreat of Christianity in the face of sustained cultural assault, increasingly I believe the Church is going to face a situation comparable to that faced by the early Church. Our world is increasingly going to resemble that of the 1st century. Therefore, we would do well to consider the strategies and approaches that contributed to the success of the early Church.

My fear is that much of the Evangelical Church in the U.S. is woefully unprepared for our changed spiritual situation. Because of the excesses of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement, many Evangelicals are discouraged from exploring such things further, or merely dismiss them off-hand.

I remember a conversation I had with another seminarian while attending Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the 90's. He was serving at the time on the elder board of a local congregational church. He recounted how they'd recently been approached by a concerned member of the congregation who lived in a historic, 17th century New England home. The congregational member was frequently startled by a woman in white. He would catch glimpses of her at the top of the stairs, or even more frighteningly, awake to find her standing across the room from his bed (only to disappear). The man implored the elders to come to his house to pray over it. The somewhat dismissive reply the gave was that following Jesus' example with the centurion, there was no need for them to come to the house but they could merely pray about it at their usual elders' meeting. The overall impression I got was that the seminarian and the other elders felt the situation was somewhat comical, unbelievable...

All too often, we've been able to dismiss such things. But my hunch is that as Christian continues to recede, we won't have the luxury. I think our situation is analagous to that described in R.H. Benson's wonderful book A Mirror of Shalott.

 

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In it, a group of priests gather to recount supernatural stories. One begins his story in this way:

My contribution to the histories which these good priests are to recite, is an affair of exorcism. That is a matter with which we who live in Europe are not familiar in these days . It would seem, I suppose, that grace has a certain power, accumulating through the centuries, of saturating even physical objects with its force. However men may rebel yet the sacrifices offered and the prayers poured out have a faculty of holding Satan in check, and preventing his more formidable manifestations . Even in my own poor country at this hour , in spite of widespread apostacy , in spite even of the deliberate worship of Satan , yet grace is in the air ; and it is seldom , indeed , that a priest has to deal with a case of possession . In your respectable England , too , it is the same ; the simple piety of Protestants has kept alive to some extent the force of the Gospel .

I wonder if we've been in a similar situation here in America. Of course, we often don't tend to notice/encounter such things because we're not looking for them. To a large degree, much of the Church has adopted the materialist worldview of the culture that has reigned for quite some time. But as Christianity recedes in years ahead my hunch is that the powers will come rushing in, in a manner and to a degree, we've not seen before. As they say, "nature abhors a vacuum..." My fear is that the Church is woefully unprepared. And while much of the broader Evangelical Church is apt to dismiss such things, I'm not sure it will have the luxury in the years ahead. Such things have a way of intruding and, if I'm right, will do so more and more.

Even during my time at Gordon-Conwell in the 90's when such things were studiously ignored by my professors and dismissed off-hand when brought up, they had a way of intruding. Our last year, my wife and I served as resident advisors in our dorm. In the spring of that year, an Asian student committed suicde. A couple of weeks later, the head of student housing held a meeting for RA's in her office. After filing in and taking our seats (and after the door was closed), she started the meeting by asking us not to tell anyone what she was about to share. As RA's, she felt it was necessary for us to know that over the past couple of weeks she had been approached by a string of Asian students claiming they had seen the recently deceased student standing in the corner of their apartment weeping. As I said, such things have a way of intruding.

My wife and I pastored a church for 9 years in Ithaca, NY. The majority of our congregation's members were students at Cornell (many from around the world). At one point we had 13 different countries represented in our church.

One night at our small group we discovered that of the 14 people present, 6 had been involved at some point in their past with Santeria, a folk-religion akin to Vodoo. One member described how as a child, he would participate in religous ceremonies where his mother would become possessed by the spirit of a dead slave woman. As our culture becomes more diverse in the decades ahead, many immigrants will bring with them similar spiritual practices. The Church had best get ready.

What then ought we to do? A first step, would be acknowledging that much of the Church has been laboring under a worldview more in keeping with a naturalistc modernity than the historic Christian faith. Instead, we need to reclaim a worldview that faithfully reflects reality as it is, one that is aligned with Scripture and historic Christian teaching. One that recognizes that we live in a world of principalities, powers and dominions.

There are signs for hope. The broader cultural movement on the part of many seeking reenchantment (e.g. the new generation of DMT useres or "psychonauts") seems to be paralleled by a similar current within the Evangelical movement. The popularity of such podcasts as Haunted Cosmos, Lord of Spirits and The Exorcist Files being but one manifestation.

I've been working on a DMin. degree at Gordon-Conwell over the past 1 1/2 years while concurrently participating in one of their fellows programs. I've found to my surprise, a new willingness to discuss such things. I've had numerous conversations with other students and fellows (all of whom are from mainline denominations) about deliverance and spiritual oppression. One session in our recent DMin. cohort was even devoted to "the pastor as exorcist" (!). So there appears to be a growing recognition on the part of many in the broader Evangelical movement that

The dificulty of course, is finding the "radical middle" between dismissing Satan as anthropomorphized evil and seeing a demon behind every rock. As C.S. Lewis rightly points out, Satan hails "a materialist or magician with the same delight."

Where does one go then, to find solid Biblical teaching on such things, particularly when much produced by the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements is not especially grounded. On a side note, my experience is that while many of the historic Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God talk about such things, the rank and file who sit in the pews have little if any genuine practical experience with spiritual gifts, deliverance, etc.

If you agree with my overall hunch that we're moving into a time of increased and diverse spiritual activity, are there any authors you feel would help us navigate the years ahead (or prepare for it!)?

What's your experience been of such things? Have you ever had any experiences you'd describe as supernatural? Tell us about it in the comment section.

Are you currently dealing with a situation that's puzzling or inexplicable and would like to talk with someone about it? Feel free to reach out to me at: edwarddavis68@gmail.com